What a difference seven days makes. Sunday week, Manchester United’s season had unravelled and manager David Moyes was living on borrowed time less than a year into the job. Following humiliating submission to Liverpool at Old Trafford even the most patient observers had seemingly drawn a line under the former Everton manager’s time at the club. Little wonder, with Moyes presiding over 12 defeats in all competitions this season amid the worst United campaign for 20 years.
Yet, victories over West Ham United and Olympiakos have contributed to a renewed and even positive atmosphere in Moyes’ camp as United prepare for significant games ahead. The Reds may be far from favourites, but Manchester City arrives at Old Trafford on Tuesday night with the home side finding an improved sense of belief.
Wayne Rooney’s double against the Hammers on Saturday followed a dramatic comeback against Olympiakos on Tuesday to leave United in the quarter final of the Champions League and chasing European qualification next season.
Still, Moyes’ side has failed to beat few teams of note this season; only Arsenal of the Premier League’s top nine teams has succumbed to United this season. Meanwhile, in Europe a pairing with Bayern Munich represents a significant step up in class from those teams already beaten in the competition.
Whatever has already passed this season, these are surely the games on which Moyes must be judged. City and then Bayern are a test not only of Moyes’ tactical acumen, but in a season of distinct mediocrity, also of the Scot’s ability to draw more than the sum of United’s substantial parts.
Judgement will also be passed on the increasingly bullish rhetoric from Moyes this week. If United truly are to be compared with Europe’s best, then the Scot’s team must prove it.
“We’re not as far away as many people would have us and I’ve no doubt it’ll improve,” said the manager.
“We want to show we’re still in there fighting. We want to perform better in the bigger games than we have done, I have no doubt about that. But we don’t go into it any differently – we want to win them all. We go out to win every game – not just the derby.
“In the last couple of games, a lot of the players have stepped up to the plate and performed. But I’m not surprised by that at all – that’s what they’re capable of and I’ve been saying that all year.”
United benefit from few fresh injury concerns. Striker Robin van Persie could miss the season’s remainder with a knee complaint, while defenders Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling also miss City’s visit. However, winger Nani is in the matchday squad after recovering from a serious hamstring problem.
On the pitch Moyes faces questions both in midfield and defence. United set up in an unfamiliar 4-2-3-1 against the Hammers; a formation that enabled Juan Mata to play centrally, and crammed Shinji Kagawa into the side as well. It was a significantly more flexible and nuanced approach.
However, history suggests that come the biggest games Moyes reverts to what he knows best, with both Adnan Januzaj and Antonio Valencia in line for a recall against City, although Mata should again enjoy an outing in his more natural role behind the principle striker.
In defence Moyes is again short-handed. Rio Ferdinand may return, enabling Michael Carrick to return to a more familiar role in central midfield after the Geordie was deployed in central defence against West Ham.
“Michael did great at centre-half,” said Moyes. “He’s played there before so it wasn’t a problem. We even considered putting Marouane Fellaini back there as well, so I think we’ve got people who can do that if we have to.
“We gave Pat a rest but, if we have to, I think we can put him there as well and he would cope manfully. It was great that the squad mucked in and that’s the way it should be, when you are short in areas and it’s all hands to the pumps. We were short on Saturday and Michael certainly played really well.”
Meanwhile, City arrives at Old Trafford hoping to chase down Chelsea at the head of the Premier League. The Londoners have opened up an six point gap on City, although Manuel Pellegrini’s men enjoy three games in hand.
Indeed, it has been a season of mixed fortunes for the Chilean coach. While boasting the strongest squad in the Premier League, City have lost four times on the road in what has been a far from stellar campaign.
In January the Sky Blues were legitimately chasing four trophies, yet defeat to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup and Barcelona in Europe, together with Chelsea’s form, leaves the phlegmatic Pellegrini looking at the Capital One Cup as potentially the only silverware heading to the Etihad this season. It is scant reward for more than £100 million invested in the transfer market last summer, and over £1 billion since the Abu Dhabi Royal family acquired the club in 2008.
Pellegrini is without Matija Nastasic and Sergio Aguero, but defender Vincent Kompany is available after serving a one-match suspension for the red card picked up against Hull City.
However, the City coached played down City’s tag as favourites the win the game, with the Sky Blues 12 points ahead of United in the Premier league.
“I don’t think we are favourites in any game,” said Pellegrini.
“We are in a good moment but we are playing against a big team in their own stadium, so I don’t think we are the favourites. Of course we always expect to go and win every game but just because Manchester United have had a difficult season it does not mean we are going to win.”
It is ruse that few fans on either side will buy. After all, while City’s lead over in the Premier League is healthy, the Blues have also won four of the last five meetings between the sides, including a 4-1 win at the Etihad Stadium in September.
Manchester United v Manchester City, Premier League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm 25 March 2013
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Mata; Rooney
City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaletta, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; Milner, Toure, Fernandinho, Silva; Dzeko, Negredo
United: Lindegaard, Buttner, Fletcher, Young, Kagawa, Welbeck, Hernandez
City: Pantilimon, Kolarov, Javi García, Demichelis, Jesús Navas, Boyata, Rodwell, Jovetic
Head to Head
United 69 Draw 50 City 47
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